Windows 8: The Good, The Bad, The Truly Ugly...

It's been a while that I've been using Windows 8, and thanks to Classic Shell I don't often have to look at the funky, chunky, ugly new start menu. Overall, in the last year (give or take a bit), I have formed some impressions about the O/S I feel like plunking down.

First, to defenders of the new look and feel...you're wrong. It isn't that the new UI elements are all bad, but they were not designed with desktop computing in mind. They were designed for some specific form factors (tablets; maybe phones, though I doubt some of those choices), and all else was damned. I don't know whether Windows 8.1 will rectify these issues, but the problems with the new UI are ingrained in whatever principle of design was applied. When you dumb down interfaces, you ensure the reduction of utility of devices over time. Sure, grandma can see the big button, and my big thumb can hit it reliably on a phone, but it is a choice that eschews improvement of the user over meeting the lowest common denominator. And while that might seem to some to equate with "making it easier" the long-term impact is the opposite. And I have an example to prove this point: the Settings charm and the Control Panel. Yes, Control Panel is daunting, but it has power -- and the whole point of accessing the 'control' elements of a system is to control it. Half-control is not the purpose. Yet the PC Settings charm is under-powered to a degree that, if you really need control, you have to go back to the Control Panel anyhow. So, all this new UI element did was fracture the points of access to the underlying control interfaces. Some is available in one location, most is available in the other. Now whether that is eventually rectified isn't the point. The point is that a proper UI redesign would not have caused further access fracturing. It's foolishness to suggest otherwise. And that fracturing means that when a user needs to really access the guts of the PC settings, they still need to step to the Control Panel, making the uncertain user even less capable over time. It makes no sense unless the purpose of the new UI is to actually create this sort of confusion, and reduce user knowledge requirements permanently. And that would be fine if we were talking about limited-value devices, like purpose-focused tablets, but given the incredible reliance of business processes on IT, reducing the utility of the devices is reducing the efficiency of those processes. A new UI for the sake of itself is not proper design.

Second, at an O/S feature level...Windows 8 is an incremental improvement. Network file copying is, for example, much more friendly from a feedback perspective. BUT...the new UI does get in the way of those improvements at times, and, frankly, I have never managed to really get networking on a Windows 8 box in a mixed network client environment to behave. The fact almost all of the quirks are UI-related is telling, and sadly obscures some really interesting tweaks beneath all the presentation junk. And this somewhat renders the feature-improvements moot. What is the point of a better O/S if the better parts are defeated by the surface? (No pun intended.)

Third, and this is a concern I didn't expect to be expressing about an O/S that is essentially a fractional version above Windows 7: there is something inherently unstable in this O/S. I bought a laptop made for Windows 8, touch-screen and all (a waste, that), and in the last year I have noted strange problems that seem integrally bound to updates. Every time there is an update, for example, one or more aspects of the network rigging seems to be altered arbitrarily. (The latest was the addition of a Homegroup icon on the desktop, which seems to be impossible to remove.) Five times, after an "update Tuesday", a network that has functioned prior to the update just fell apart in terms of shares and file sharing. In two cases the configuration actually was altered by the updates, and in three others I have never discovered the cause of the problems. This is just one of the more obvious issues, and not even as aggravating as a few. (The most singularly odd and annoying aspect is that the file system is non-responsive to certain events. Moving a folder or deleting a file ought to remove it from the UI, without requiring the user to hit F5 to refresh -- but when they do hit F5...it ought to refresh instantly. Granted, this oddity has existed for years on certain systems, but that it still remains on Windows 8 is just unforgivable laziness.)

So after about a year of using Windows 8, on the cusp of a new 8.1 rendition, what is the sum positive impact of Windows 8? Nothing, I suspect. It isn't that it lacks for improvements, but that none of them are significant in context of its oddities, its incomplete design, or its farcical lack of address to standing problems from previous versions of Windows. MS needs to either focus on the fundamentals soon, or the problems that they have failed to address for years will ultimately undermine their market share...because as other options improve incrementally, stagnation will doom them.

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